Three Perfect Days: Guanajuato

February 2014

My story actually starts the evening before Day 1. Tita Coy and I arrived Guanajuato at around 6:30pm. Not wanting to waste the few minutes of daylight left, we dropped off our bags in the hotel and headed straight to the monument of El Pipila, a local hero during the Mexican War of Independence. The monument sits on top of Cerro San Miguel and is reached either by foot or by funicular. In the interest of time and risk of getting lost on our first hour in the city, we chose the latter. As I stood on the edge of the stone plaza at the base of the monument, my jaw dropped at the spectacular view right in front of me. The red dome and cupola of the Basilica and other churches tower over rolling hills blanketed with pastel colors. The soft glow of the late afternoon sun gave a perfect hue to every shade of the city, as some of the evening lights started to flicker. And that is when my 3 day love affair with Guanajuato started.

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DAY 1:

Armed with our walking shoes and fully charged cameras, we set out of the hotel early. Our first stop was the central market (of course). Mercado Hidalgo is a few blocks from our hotel but in this city, we learned early enough that it is easy to get distracted by the plazas and alleys (callejones) on your way to somewhere. We were like little kids in a candy store (as the saying goes). We marveled at all the buildings painted in yellow, blue, green, maroon, orange, pink, purple and every shade in between. We gawked at plazas flanked by brightly colored cafes and windows adorned by potted plants with blooming red flowers. The shutters of our cameras were on overdrive, afraid we might miss a corner that’s worth a photograph. By the time we reached the mercado, most of the stalls are still closed (they do open late) so we opted for some fresh fruit juices, breakast cakes and cut papayas from street vendors.

 

With our sense of direction still non existent, we let our curiosity lead us in our exploration. After all, this is a place we don’t mind getting lost in. We marveled at the ornate facade of the Templo de Belen, walked past Jardin Reforma, which led us to the Plazuela and the intricately carved Templo de San Roque. Meandering along, we found ourselves next in Plazuela de San Fernando which is home to a few cafes/restaurants with outdoor seating (we knew then where next day’s breakfast would be). From one callejon to the next, from one plaza to another, we were greeted with colonial era buildings of beautiful colors. Oh how much I love Latin America. I can just sit all day in one of the ubiquitous benches found on plazas and sidewalks, but we only have 3 days here and there’s more callejones to walk on and more plazas to discover.
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We met up with the rest of the family at noon to take a one hour streetcar ride. The trolley took us all over town , up in the hills, and through the city’s criss crossing underground tunnels. Having a very small surface area, the city’s main thoroughfare and through streets are actually underground.

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Lunch at El Tapatio was next in the agenda, where we sampled the regional specialty, Enchilada Mineras, named after the hungry silver miners of the region.

Guanajuato is not like your usual colonial city where a cathedral dominates the traditional square main plaza, the rest of the square lined by some other colonial buildings, and the city streets laid out like a chess board. The streets of Guanajuato follows it’s irregular terrain, with narrow alleyways, small plazas and even steep staircases going up hillsides (yes, my quads were hurting by the time I got back home), giving it a bit of a European feel. The yellow and red colored Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guanajuato with asymmetrical towers sits diagonally behind the small triangular and perfectly manicured Plaza de la Paz, where you would usually find a cluster of art students taking a stab at replicating this work of art.

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We exclaimed with ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’’ as we wandered from one narrow alley to another, ending up in plazas and plazuelas and more callejones. We would go in some unassuming door and be pleasantly surprised with some gorgeous colonial courtyard inside or a rooftop opening to yet another beautiful view of this colorful city.

Throughout the day, we would stop at what had become our favorite snack stop by the cathedral, the La Garaffa Nieves. They sell the best nieves ever – a denser, finer version of the shaved ice that we know, packed with natural flavors. It had chunks of fresh fruit or cake or cookie or whatever flavor you’ve chosen. I’ve tried the guyabano, mango, fig with mezcal, mamey, coconut, cheesecake – and many more – but I can only eat so much nieves in a day! The other addiction we’ve developed is their corn on the cob – brushed with butter, mayonnaise, and sprinkled with parmesan cheese and chili powder. You gotta have all the works, butter and salt just won’t cut it anymore.

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In the evening, everyone met up for dinner (despedida de soltera y soltero) at a restaurant by the main plaza and it was the first time we met the bride’s family, who travelled from the Michoacan province, about 3 hours away from Guanajuato. I have never wished so much that I could speak Spanish until that night. I sat next to the bride’s sister and I honestly wished I could talk to her but my Spanish only went as far as asking her about her daughter’s age, and as expected, after telling me the age, she went on with the conversation and I had no idea what she said. Afraid I might give replies that had nothing to do with the actual question, I stopped trying. Everyone was so nice and very friendly. Despite our struggle to speak Spanish, seems like everyone had a good time. I did.

DAY 2:

We couldn’t wait to start our day. How we wished we can have 3 breakfasts as we couldn’t decide which restaurant to go. In the end, the thought of sitting underneath a big yellow umbrella in a plaza was just irresistible, so we decided on Plaza de San Fernando.

The cool morning air at Jardin de la Union greeted us as we stepped out of the hotel lobby. This triangular laurel-lined plaza is one of the best known plazas in the city, and while quiet and peaceful in the early morning, this is where the entire city (and possibly even neighboring ones) seem to congregate at night. The plaza fills up with people, music, students, mariachi bands, and street vendors as soon as the sun goes down. You’d see people dressed up in traditional 17th century costume waiting to start their callejoneada (walking serenade). It’s like a walking tour where you are being led by these local musicians, and you all weave your way through the cobblestoned streets and alleyways while being serenaded with popular folk songs (and possibly given some tequila shots).

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To say that we took an indirect route to our intended breakfast destination was an understatement. We walked thru streets we haven’t been to the day before, and let ourselves get lost in this labyrinth of color once again. Breakfast can wait. We wandered and meandered, took pictures, and took more. We went to see the city’s narrowest alley, intriguingly called Callejon del Beso, coined after a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque story, a forbidden love between Dona Carmen and Don Luis. 

We finally reached Plaza de San Fernando and picked the cafe with the bright blue and orange wall (it will look pretty in pictures). We had a breakfast package which consisted of Mexican coffee (black, sweet, and with cinnamon), bread (served with salsa), omelet, beans, and a fruit plate. Next in the agenda was a salon for Tita Coy to get her hair done, and the Diego Rivera house for me to see his paintings. By the time we were done it was half past eleven, and we have a wedding to go to at noon! Yes, my dear friends, it took us all of 30 minutes to get back to the hotel and get done just in time for the wedding at Templo San Diego, which fortunately is just about five steps from the hotel lobby.

The wedding was intimate and beautiful. The mass was offered in Spanish (of course), and the choir was composed of 3 violins, a cello, and a singer who has an angelic voice that will give you goosebumps. I am officially an emotional basketcase when it comes to wedding. This one wasn’t an exception. Carlo and Lizbeth make one beautiful couple, it was such joy to be able to share this special day in their life. After the mass, we had about an hour to kill before we will be picked up by a shuttle to take us to the reception place. We were all craving for some corn on the cob, so all dressed up, we ventured out to the city streets in search for corn. Alas, it was still too early for the corn vendors, so we ended up having… guess what … more nieves.
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The reception was held at an old mine just outside the city called Bocamina San Ramon. Everyone gasped in awe as the shuttle bus dropped us off a side of the mountain, revealing to us what looks like a stone villa, that opened to a courtyard with walls covered in vines and bougainvilleas. This city doesn’t run out of wonderful surprises. The groom and bride outdid themselves in organizing the entire event. The whole event was organized via internet and phone calls, from the flowers, to the photographer, videographer, cake, food, mariachi band and DJ. Everything turned out perfect.


As we all settled in our tables awaiting the newlyweds, a waiter came over to me and asked “tequila? “. I hesitated for a second, or actually more. I thought, it’s 3pm, I haven’t even had lunch yet, and I am having a shot of tequila ? Then I remembered the night before in a conversation with Lizbeth she had mentioned “of course there’s tequila to go with the mariachi”. Well then, I wouldn’t want to be the one breaking any traditions so… tequila it is! I have to admit though, I am still scarred from bad tequila experience in my youth and I still haven’t gotten over it. This one is pretty good and quite smooth actually, but somehow there’s something permanently etched in my brain that constantly reminds me of the worst hangover of my life.

The newlyweds arrived and danced oh-so-gracefully in a platform set in the middle of the courtyard. What followed were good food (delicious cactus salad and mole) , mariachi, mouth watering desserts, dancing, dancing, and more dancing. We also had the chance to go down the mine shaft – picture us in long dresses, with helmets on, and descending 63 steep and tall steps down a mine opening. A guide was explaining to us … actually I didn’t know what he was explaining. I could pick up a word or two here and there, and I assume some of them are interesting based on the “aaaahs” of the crowd, and that he must be funny as well because the crowd would just burst into laughter once in a while. It was such a perfect setting for a wedding reception.
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Back at the hotel, some of us headed for a bar which was recommended by my cousin. Curious about their mezcales, we changed out of our long dresses and walked over to the crowded 4-level bar. Seated on the 4th floor by the window, we could see our hotel, the San Diego Church and the cathedral, all lit up and alive, just like the rest of the city. Some ordered micheladas, a beer-based version of bloody mary. It’s basically beer (of your choice), tomato juice, lime juice, spices and served in a chili-salt rimmed glass. I had to have one of their mezcales, I can’t leave Guanajuato without trying this lesser known cousin of tequila. Made from the heart of maguey plant (a form of agave, as opposed to tequila being made from the blue agave plant), it is typically consumed straight and often accompanied by slices of oranges sprinkled with “sal de gusano” which is a mixture of fried ground larvae, salt & ground chili. They like sprinkling everything here with ground chili. I tried the tangerine infused mezcal and it was smooth, tasty, and not as strong as tequila. I liked it. As they say here “para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien”. I can see why 😛. I wanted to bring a bottle home but learned that it is infused in house, and when sold, costs about $60/bottle. I thought maybe I can just infuse my own mezcal back home. Tita Coy and I didn’t stay long, we were tired, but looking forward to yet another fun filled day.

DAY 3: San Miguel de Allende

Up at the crack of dawn (well, not really, but still early), we took our obligatory pictures of the hotel surroundings when we have the plaza all to ourselves. We were taking the Premier Plus bus to San Miguel de Allende, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in this state of Guanajuato, about an hour away from Guanajuato City. The central bus terminal is about 20 min out of the city centre, and where all the inter regional buses are. Considering it was just a one hour ride, we were really surprised at how comfortable the bus ride was, with tv monitors hanging on the ceiling, and seats that recline to a flatbed.
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The tourist information desk was still closed when we reached the SMA (that’s San Miguel de Allende.. and not Shake My A …. ) bus terminal . Lucky for us, Tita Coy speaks spanish really well and was able to ask someone at the bus stop how can we go to the city centre. We boarded a local bus, and got off at the first church with a plaza that we saw. It turned out to be Nuestra Senora de la Salud church, with it’s pink and orange dome, and a main portal in Churriguesresque style (a crest shaped like a large eggshell). We probably took a couple hundred pictures before we decided it’s time to have breakfast.

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What I love about colonial cities is the beautiful well-kept courtyards hiding behind walls and El Meson de San Jose, where we had our breakfast was not an exception. We gasped with excitement as we clicked away in our cameras. When we finally sat down to eat, a guy from the restaurant told us that the view from the rooftop is even more beautiful (people are so nice and friendly this wasn’t the first time we were led to a rooftop for “a much better view” ).

In contrast to Guanajuato City, SMA can basically be summed up in three colors – ochre (or a shade of yellow), orange and maroon. The city center is said to have 2,000 doors – that means about 2,000 courtyards waiting to be photographed!

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We traipsed all over the city center’s cobblestoned streets, and took pictures of walls painted in ochre or orange or maroon and windows framed by ironwork and adorned by flowering potted plants.

Most of the buildings had been converted to shops, restaurants or galleries and a lot of them are owned by foreigners. In contrast to Guanajuato City, SMA is littered with foreigners, mostly American retirees. The city still retains it’s charm though, despite the rising level of foreigners living there. In this sense, I liked Guanajuato much better, even if I hardly understand what everyone says since no one spoke English. In San Miguel, after every block I’d hear someone going into a store and speaking Spanish with an American accent. I don’t blame them for falling in love with this city though. Who wouldn’t.
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We wanted a birds eye view of the city, and the easiest way to get it was to take the street car ride up the hill. It was time to rest our feet anyway. The street car took us all over the city, into neighborhoods and then up the hill where we can see the entire city, with the pink Neo Gothic spires of San Miguel Parish church reaching up into the sky.
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Back at the city center, we had late lunch by the mercado, walked a few more streets until it was time to catch the local bus to the main bus terminal.

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Underestimating the traffic on these city streets, we almost didn’t make it to our bus to Guanajuato. If the bus wasn’t 2 minutes late with it’s departure, we wouldn’t have made it. That was an adventure by itself.

Back at Guanajuato, we immediately felt like we were back home. In my 3 days here, I’ve had micheladas, mezcales, elote, tequila, churros, nieves – but I can’t leave unless I’ve had their street tacos! So tired as we may, we still went to the mercado looking for some tacos, and ended up in Plaza de Baratillo. We got some carne asada tacos and chorizo tortas and boy they were good. It was just the perfect touch to end my 3 day love affair with these cities of colors.

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